"For a twenty-one-year-old, you have an extensive resume, Ms. March," said the manager.
"What can I say? I've been working since I was fifteen. Horticulture is my passion. I'm very good at pruning and I can plant off season," Allie said.
"That's great Ms. March, but I'll be sincere." The woman tapped the file as if she patted Allie's back. "You don't meet the educational qualifications required for this job."
"Well, my experience will show my qualifications and my references check out."
"I'm sorry, but I can only offer a front desk position."
In Oregon, Allie had worked multiple jobs, but most of her earlier bosses had seen her impressive gardening skills.
It started when she helped a nice old lady with her vegetable garden. Next day, the woman's husband was offering her a landscaping gig. As she mastered the field at eighteen years old and soon was managing a farm. More than a great horticulturist, she loved working hard. Starting over was fine as long as she had Grayson’s love. She was marrying the love of her life and nothing else mattered.
"Sure, I get it. I don't mind the front desk," she nodded.
Ernie's Nursery was a tiny house with a giant backyard covered in plants. Although Allie preferred to be outside tending to the flowers, she enjoyed watching the foliage from the giant glass window by her desk.
The job comprised handling phone calls, greeting customers, and making supply calls for ten dollars an hour. Not bad, she thought.
Behind her, there were arrangements for sale and the rest of the store comprised small aisles with products such as seed packets, fertilizer, vases, scissors, aprons, and more.
The early afternoon brought customers with diverse demands. A bride and her wedding planner kept her busy for a while, looking at bouquet samples. Not long after, a boy dropped his juice on aisle four and her boss told her to clean the mess.
With the mop in one hand, she thought her first day was easy until she heard a familiar voice coming from aisle six.
"What do I get for her birthday?" Meryl talked into her phone while inspecting a small vase. Her high heels and yellow pants reminded Allie of a giraffe. "She's so weird! Have you seen her garden gnome collection?"
Allie snooped through the vases. Still holding the mop, she scurried around the isle and faced Meryl's back. If she helped her find a birthday present for her acquaintance, she might develop a relationship with her landlord's girlfriend. This could help ease the mean looks she had been getting.
Before taking another step, Allie froze, seeing Meryl sneak the vase into her purse.
"Meryl?" This was the moment she knew Dean’s girlfriend hated her forever.
"Allie," Meryl spun. "You work here?"
"First day on the job. Listen, I don't want you to get in trouble—"
Meryl began panting, squeezing her purse closer to her ribs. "Please don't tell Dean."
"I won't tell anyone, but you need to put it back."
The delinquent winced at Allie.
"Excuse me? Oh my God!" she yelled out of nowhere, then jerked Allie's mop, staining her own pants.
Allie frowned at the odd scene, knowing Meryl had done it on purpose.
"Everything okay here?" A manager stepped into aisle six.
"No! She ruined my clothes." Ever since she could remember, Meryl had always fed off drama. Even as a baby, her parents got her into diaper commercials. So to no one’s surprise, she went to college for a theater arts major.
"I'm so sorry for your pants, ma'am," said the manager. "How did this happen?"
“Sorry, I wanted to ask her if she needed help,” said Allie. “Guess I got distracted and brushed the mop against her pants.” She didn’t tell the truth, fearing Dean might kick her out of the apartment for snitching on his girlfriend.
"Allie, please, go back to the front desk," told her boss.
Allie worked the cash register, fearing an unjust termination.
"Hello, fifteen dollars is my change," said a dark-skinned man with curly hair and hazel eyes.
"Right," Allie put the cash she was holding inside the machine, and returned fifteen dollars. "Sorry."
"That's okay," he smiled.
Allie returned the gesture, although her eyes screamed.
"Ma'am! Ma'am! I need you to stop right there," a security guard thundered.
Meryl sprinted in front of him. His steps became longer, catching her arm. Shoppers and employees ceased their activities to stare at the play.
The security guard jumped in front of her. "Ma'am, I will have to check your bag."
"What? My bag? Why?" Asked Meryl.
"Please hand over your bag. Don't make me take it myself."
She looked at everyone around her and gave him her purse. The guard unzipped the top and pulled out the vase she had stolen earlier, a dream catcher and a garden gnome. They still carried the store tag.
Allie felt as ashamed as if she had been the one stealing. She buried herself in her job and focused on the cash register.
Meryl's greed might have saved Allie’s job. The managers couldn't believe how many things she had fit in her purse. Security tapes only recorded her stealing the gnome figurine, but that was enough to charge her with a misdemeanor.
Allie inserted her apartment key into the keyhole ready to forget the entire thing, but an argument unfolded as she entered her home.
"Thirty dollars worth of things? I could have given you thirty dollars. So no, Meryl, knowing it was only thirty dollars doesn't make it any better," Dean yelled.
"Why are you treating me like I robbed a bank? It's not fair," Meryl sobbed.
Allie heard the couple from the bedroom. She tried not to make a noise by tip-toeing into the hallway, but Dean strode outside, zipping up his cargo shorts and throwing a t-shirt over his shoulder. He was so turbulent he didn't even see her.
Meryl ran after him, wrapped in a bedsheet. She stopped, seeing Allie making her way into her bedroom. "I can't believe you told Dean."
"What? I haven't seen him," said Allie.
"Nobody told me," Dean blushed. "You know what? Jay told me, and half the school knows because somebody took a video."
"It was you, wasn't it?" Meryl kept pointing at Allie.
"You're crazy!" Allie had enough.
Dean rolled his eyes, put on his t-shirt and grabbed his car keys from the coffee table.
"Dean, what are you doing?" Asked Meryl.
"I can't be here right now. I need to think."
"But you were taking me out to dinner, remember?"
"Oh, the princess wants me to take her out to dinner?"
He traced circles with his wrist and bowed.
"Sure thing, babe. Should I leave my wallet at home, since you can steal that fettuccine Alfredo for us?"
A vein on his girlfriend's forehead grew larger as she thought of ways to retaliate.
"That's what I thought," Dean clapped. "And I hope you're gone when I'm back."
He banged the front door behind him.
Meryl gave Allie a menacing look and ran into Dean's bedroom. From the bathroom, Allie could hear her sobbing until she heard her footsteps out of the house.
Dean had been pressing the channel button on the remote since he got home. He kept trying to relax, but nothing eliminated his anxiety. The phone on the coffee table in front of him vibrated with a message that read, "I'm outside."
He jumped off the couch and let his friend into the apartment.
"What's up, man?" Said Jay, a dark-skinned man with curly hair and hazel eyes.
"Not'n much," replied Dean. "Tryin' to watch TV." He went back to the couch and Mr. Pops rested his head on his lap. The TV was playing an infomercial for blenders.
"Buy one, get one free, huh? That's a good deal," Jay frowned at the unusual programming choice.
"I confronted Meryl about the stealing right after you told me," the anxious man went straight to the point.
"Yeah, I couldn't believe it when I saw that guard emptying her purse. Did she deny it?"
"Quite the opposite, she wasn't one bit remorseful." Dean locked his eyes on the blender.
"Dude, how long are you going to keep doing this to yourself?" Jay shook his head.
"It's been three years and every time I think she'll change, she pulls off something childish like this. You know what she said after I asked her why she did it? She said it was for her friend's birthday and that the store shouldn't overreact for thirty miserable dollars. As if her dad wasn't already giving her an allowance. Please, she just gets off on stealing."
"You realize you just told me the reason you should break up with her, right?"
"I'm just a one girl deal," Dean sighed. "I don't want to jump around. I just want the right one."
"Bro, you sound like you're forty. You're twenty three right now. This is the time to let go. Have you told her you love her?"
"No. I care about her, but I still don't feel that way."
"That's because you never will. Trust me, man. It's now or never."
The conversation came to a stop when Allie walked into the kitchen. Jay's head turned one hundred and eighty degrees.
"Hey, you're the girl from the store," he exclaimed.
Allie recognized his messy curls. She wouldn't forget the only person who smiled at her when she was going through the ordeal.
"What a small world. Are you guys friends?" asked Allie.
"Dean, how rude. You haven't introduced us," Jay joked.
"Right, Jay, this is my new roommate, Allie. Allie, this is my best friend, Jay."
Allie stepped into the living room and shook Jay's hand.
"What are you guys watching?"
"Dean really loves blenders," replied Jay.
Dean let out a big laugh and punched Jay on his bicep. "Don't listen to him. We're just chilling. What are you doing?"
"I'm about to cook something. Do you want anything?" She asked.
They both replied with a desperate, "yes." Dean’s stomach rumbled. He didn't even care for what she was making as long as it was warm food. As a college bachelor, his kitchen had instant noodles, protein bars, and frozen food. He had yet to use half of the pots and pans his mom had bought for him.
As soon as Allie got in front of the stove, the aroma from the groceries she had bought after work made the guys' stomachs crawl.
Forty minutes later, they sat at the table to green bean casserole, cornbread, and meatloaf. Dean and Jay went at it like homeless kids. The last proper meal eaten in the apartment was Meryl's unevenly reheated leftover mac and cheese.
Allie couldn't stop smiling at the fact that Dean loved her food so much.
"That was so good," Jay rubbed his belly while helping Dean do the dishes. "Are you a professional chef?"
"No," replied Allie. "I enjoy growing the food more than I enjoy making it."
"A horticulturist," said Dean. "You should make it a career."
"Yeah, I guess I should," she scratched her head, wishing she had the money for it. "What do you guys do?"
"I'm studying engineering and Jay's doing computer science."
After dishes, Dean accompanied Jay out of the apartment.
"You like her," said Jay.
"What? Who?" Asked Dean.
"She's hot, she cooks, and she lives with you. You think she's perfect," Jay laughed.
"How? Just because I'm nice? I can't be nice? Plus, even if I did, she has a boyfriend. Fiance, mind you."
"No, it's because I've known you since the sixth grade. That's why."
Dean let a puff of air out and nodded his head in disapproval of Jay's statement.
In her bedroom, Allie wrote in her journal about her day, when her phone buzzed twice.
It was a text from Grayson. After a week of total silence, he was replying to the news of her finding a place.
"Sorry for the late reply. Got caught up with work. Can I see you tonight?" he asked.
"I don't know. I moved to Houston because I didn't want a long-distance relationship, but nothing changed," she replied.
"Please, don't be mad. Let me come over tonight. My boss put me in charge of a very important case and I've had to read over five binders of evidence. I'm trying to work for us."
His last sentence drove her into a guilt odyssey. How selfish. He was working to save money to marry the girl of his dreams. Meanwhile, she was a needy girl, putting her feelings before him. The unlikely actions of a future wife.
"I understand. I'm happy that I'll get to see you tonight, love you."
"I love you, too," he texted back after a long minute.
She put her phone back down on the bed, and it vibrated once again. Without looking at the caller ID, she picked up, thinking it was Grayson.
"Hey, did you butt-dial me?" she chuckled.
It was an older man’s voice. "Allie? Allie, please don't hang up."
"I told you to leave me alone," she scream-whispered and hung up on him.
The calendar hanging by the chest of drawers had never served its purpose. Grayson had bought it for Allie back in January because it contained enchanting pictures of the New Zealand flora.
It reminded her of her excitement as she received the gift and how she thought from that day on she would never love another man. So she didn't imagine the dissipation of fireworks and butterflies in her stomach. Tonight, she was putting the calendar to good use.
It was May the twenty-second, and the next day, work started at one in the afternoon. That meant she was allowing herself two beers in the middle of the week.
She forced her legs into her jeans and zipped up her hoodie; no shirt underneath it.
She got her hair up in a ponytail and snatched her car keys and wallet.